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Reimagining early childhood education [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we chat with Dr. Shira Leibowitz, CEO of Discovery Village Childcare Center and Preschool and REVABILITIES™ Educational Leadership Training Center. We discuss reimagining early childhood education and advocating for change.

Shira has worked in education for almost 30 years, teaching and leading programs for people of literally all ages – 6 weeks through graduate students in education and educational leaders. She believes that the play, wonder, and awe of early childhood are the best education has to offer. Early childhood education has so much to teach the entire field of education. Not only is it the foundation for life, but it also holds the keys to excellence for lifelong learning.

Early childhood needs to have a voice in the kindergarten through 12th-grade space. There is often a silo when instead we should push down the greatness of human-centric, lifelong learning. During the pandemic, we were forced to dig deep into our own character and so much good emerged through such a hard time. There was a narrative of the education system being broken and light being shone on the lack of funding and lack of respect for educators.

This is central to re-imagining childcare. Many centers faced adversity, got better, and became stronger. We were willing to face the challenges and take on the lack of respect for the field. We went outdoors much more and become reconnected to the power of nature in learning. Some of the groups that came together through this tragedy to learn together have now emerged as new schools. We have so much possibility coming out of these hard times.

We can nurture and support children more and that is what powerful education is. The small acts we do are the big acts. For early childhood in particular the light is shining on professionalism, staffing and pay. Looking for solutions has to be part of the conversation. When COVID hit, as an industry we changed overnight, we did not have a choice. We proved that we can be fast to change.

Early childhood educators are bare none the most creative and resourceful, the quality of early childhood education is the best education that exists at any age. We don’t say that out loud often because childcare is treated in a way that is not respected and that needs to change. We need to shout from the rooftop that we are capable leaders, we are talented, and we have so much to teach the greater field.

We are in a moment of redefining what is possible in education. It feels like a moment of many new approaches emerging. Therefore, Dr. Shira created a space for leaders looking to develop their signature approaches and customized path to help bring them to life. We dream while we create.

Dr. Shira’s recommended resources

Podcast episode transcript

Shira LEIBOWITZ:

We need to shout from the rooftops: “We are capable educators, we are capable leaders. We are talented. We have so much to teach the broader field.” And we need to say that loud and proud and confident.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Shira, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

LEIBOWITZ:

Thank you so much for inviting me, Ron, I’m so happy to be here!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, we’re happy to have you. We have with us today Dr. Shira Leibowitz. She’s the CEO of Discovery Village Childcare Center Preschool and Revabilities Educational Leadership Training Center. We’re going to talk to Shira today about reimagining early-childhood education. That sounds exciting, refreshing. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Shira, and your motivations and passions for getting into early-childhood.

LEIBOWITZ:

Thank you so much. I am a career educator: I spent 20 years, or a little over 20 years, as the principal and head of school of mostly K-to-5 schools. Some had pre-K and three-year-old programs, some had middle schools. And I was always enamored with the play and project- based emergent learning excellent early-childhood programs and worked to bring that approach up through the grades, through K-to-5 and through K-to-8 – K meaning kindergarten, for those not in the United States.

And I came to a point in my career where I felt really ready to create my own school, design my own school. And so in July of 2019, I opened my childcare center and preschool. And that has been the fruition of lots of years of learning and thinking about education. I have led and taught in schools for people of literally all ages now, from birth through doctoral students in education. And I still teach part time at Northeastern University in Boston online, advising doctoral students in education.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. I think that is music to a lot of our listeners’ ears, probably, in early-childhood education that you saw a lot of the benefits of the early-childhood approach and applied them in school-age programs. That is amazing. Usually that’s certainly a point that a lot of our early-childhood educators struggle with, getting children ready for school. So, I’m curious to know, now that you are operating a childcare program, how has your thinking about that developed, in terms of the play-based learning and trying to leverage more of that approach in school-age programs?

LEIBOWITZ:

It’s been deepened and strengthened. And I believe to my core that early-childhood needs to have a voice in the kindergarten-through-12th-grade space. It is something that… I fight the kind of bifurcation and silos between early-childhood being their own world, and K-12 being a different world. And that I feel that we need to, in early-childhood, get kids ready for kindergarten, in elementary school get kids ready for middle school, in middle school get kids ready for high school, instead of really pushing down the greatness of human-centered learning. We say “child-centered learning”, but it’s lifelong.

And it is a goal of mine to continue to work in early-childhood and to move back into training leaders in K-to-12 and supporting them to bring that learner immersion approach up through the grades. And I think that many parts of our educational system are very ready for that, in a way that they weren’t pre-2020.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yes, good point. I love that. Wow, what amazing impact you could have and early-childhood education could have on K-12 school education. So, we kicked off today saying we would be chatting about reimagining early-childhood education. Let’s just go with the big question right out of the gate: What do we mean when we say reimagining early-childhood education? What does that mean to you?

LEIBOWITZ:

In 2020 when we either stayed open as essential or we went remote, we weren’t able to do things the way we had always done them. And we were forced to dig deep into our own qualities of character and resourcefulness. And there was so much good that emerged. And there were these two narratives going on throughout those very difficult months and years, one of how hard this is and how horrible this is. And the narrative in early-childhood of the system being broken.

And light was shone on the ugliness in the system, the lack of funding for teachers, the lack of respect for the profession. All of that is true and needs to be addressed and is central to the re-imagining. And at the same time, there were many programs – including my own and many that I was blessed to work with – who faced the adversity and got better, dug deep and became stronger and stronger.

So, reimagining happened in our willingness to face the real challenges and to take on the lack of respect for the profession, to take on the challenges in funding, to take on that push from K-to-12 that we were talking about for kids to get ready for kindergarten, rather than to dive deeper into excellence in learning.

And other core ideals emerged. So, concern for well-being, concern for mental and emotional well-being and concern for financial well-being. A connection to the outdoors – how many of us went outside much more and became much more connected to the power of learning outside, not only because it was safer, but because there are so many benefits for kids and for the planet? So, nature learning

So, many of the pods that gathered together first out of out of necessity and despair and emerged as full-on schools, rethinking the way education functions in our world. And so we have so many more possibilities there. There was the core of all of them before, for sure. Yet they’ve flourished and have thrived through the hard times. In many ways, because of the hard times, more resourcefulness was needed.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that was certainly an interesting theme on the Preschool Podcast and a lot of our conversations through the pandemic, was obviously lots of challenges, a very long list of those. But the flip side was it challenged folks to think differently, to be innovative, take new approaches. And those that did and could adapt flourished.

And I guess taking that more broadly, do you feel like with all the changes over the last couple of years and all the challenges, that there is more openness in the K-12 education system for different approaches, including potentially adopting some of the approaches we would take in early-childhood?

LEIBOWITZ:

I think that through the past two years, early-childhood has been the metaphorical canary in the minefield. Everything that happened, happened to us first and happened with more force. And the dual narratives that I hear in the early-childhood space, one side being broken, despair, burnout, pain, challenge, people being fed up, wanting to leave the profession, not wanting to enter the profession. And at the same time, others saying, “This is a founding moment and we can create new ways of being.”

And I hear that in the K-12 space, as well. The K-12 space is also facing teacher shortages, people not wanting to enter the profession, many district superintendents wringing their hands about what they talk about as “learning loss” because the test scores aren’t what they need to be. And then others saying, “That’s not what matters. We can dig in to nurturing kids’ passions and talents and interests and supporting their mental and emotional well-being. And that’s what powerful education is.” And so both coexist and both narratives are true and are struggling with each other as we see what will emerge in the coming years.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And how can folks in early-childhood education have an impact on this? Because that’s something I always struggle with. And you mentioned things like burnout. And we know there’s staff shortages, which means people are potentially working longer hours, taking on more shifts and longer shifts in their roles in early-childhood education. With all these challenges, how can we find the time to make an impact on a more practical level, with supporting this concept of taking what we know to be really great learning approaches and having them move into the wider education system?

LEIBOWITZ:

The macro and the micro are the same. The small acts that we do are the big acts that we do. So, if we make the decision that we are going to move forward and change the way learning happens and engage in those conversations in education for people from birth through adulthood, then creative people see what’s possible. And there are such creative people in the early-childhood space and in the K-to-12 space looking to make change, some within the big systems and some more schools on the outside creating new programs.

And in early-childhood in particular, the light is shining on professionalism and staffing and pay. And looking for solutions can’t be hidden anymore. It has to be part of the conversation and it has to be addressed and owned. And in March of 2020, when pandemic hit, we changed literally overnight. We did it. We didn’t really have a choice either. And the choice was to shut down and go home and throw in the towel. But so many didn’t and so many figured out how to change. And education has been accused of being really slow to change. We proved that we can be fast to change. And when we put our collective will and spirit and creativity on this, then there are solutions and there are ways forward.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And I’m curious to hear your opinion on something, which is I think folks in the field chat a lot among themselves about the importance of their work and in the profession and the learnings that are happening there. Do you think sometimes we’re also selling ourselves short in early-childhood education, though, when it comes to quote-unquote, “screaming from the rooftops” a little bit more loudly about the benefits? And not only the benefits, but also, frankly, the capabilities of early-childhood educators?

LEIBOWITZ:

Big time, big time. I live in the university space with professors and I live in the early-childhood space. And I’ve lived in elementary, middle and high school spaces. And early-childhood educators are, bar none, the most creative, the most resourceful. Early-childhood education-quality early-childhood education is the best education that exists through adulthood [to] senior citizenship. Every age we don’t say that.

And I feel that so strongly because I can choose to present myself in different ways. So, when I choose to present myself as a PhD in education, twenty ears in the field, author of two books, teaching doctoral students, I’m treated in one way. When I say I own a childcare center, it’s, “Oh, how cute. You play with babies all day.” And it’s maddening. And that needs to change.

We need to shout from the rooftops, we are capable educators, we are capable leaders. We are talented. We have so much to teach the broader field. And we need to say that loud and proud and confident. And something so frustrating to me is that, in the online spaces where K-to-12 educators congregate, early-childhood educators really don’t enter. And there’s no reason why not to.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

It’s so fascinating and so interesting to think what could happen if we did mingle more with those other teachers in those other groups. Because I’m very certain, as you are, that they would learn a lot from early-childhood educators.

LEIBOWITZ:

So much. The transformation that they need, the wisdom for the transformation that they need, exists right now in the early-childhood space. And the tragedy is that early-childhood educators and leaders don’t realize the gifts that we have to share and to bring to the broader field.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, 100%. Okay, so changing tracks a little bit here: We know a lot about the value of early-childhood education, which we’ve been chatting about. What role does culture play in this? I think you’ve talked a little bit about some of the characteristics we would love to see in early-childhood educators, like leadership. Can you talk a little bit about the culture? And you also have the perspective of operating a childcare program, too, so you can speak from that practical side, as well.

LEIBOWITZ:

“Culture”, meaning school culture, to me is like cultivating a garden or your own body – it’s constant. So, you need to drink water. You need to water your garden. If you were drinking sufficient amounts of water three weeks ago and haven’t had water in a couple of weeks, you’re dying. You’re going into organ failure. If you ate nutrition food a month ago but haven’t had access to food since, you’re dying.

And culture is no different. It takes constant tending-to. And leaders get surprised when there’s dips in morale. But that’s normal, just like there is dips in energy when we haven’t slept well or we haven’t had enough water or we have forgotten to eat because we’ve been too busy. And that needs to be tended to immediately. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the school; it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the teachers; it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the leaders. It just means we’re human and we’re in an organic, dynamic place.

And so when we treat culture as something that demands constant tending-to and that will have ebbs and flows not only throughout the year but or throughout the week, but throughout the day, then we don’t get thrown when we see a morale dip. Just like we don’t get thrown when we feel a little tired and we feel like we have to get a better night’s sleep.

So, all of the things that leaders do in terms of supporting teachers, promoting an environment in which people are taking care of each other, in which people’s needs are met, in which people are receiving the resources that they need to be successful, all of those things are continuous. And it’s made a huge difference for me and for my leadership team not getting defensive about it, not getting jubilant when there’s an up-day, although we get excited and happy and we live in the joy of early-childhood. But not getting thrown or disheartened when something goes wrong, taking it with calm and addressing it in a really consistent way.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, I really love that analogy of the organic aspect of it, and the water analogy in particular. It’s so true, it’s not a one-and-done thing, it’s constant. I love it. And I also love how you have a leadership team, too, and you refer to them as such because that’s something we’ve chatted a little bit about here, in terms of leadership in early-childhood education.

And so in addition to the childcare program Discovery Village, there’s also this educational leadership training center, Revabilities. What’s that all about? What are some of the things that you focus on with the educational leadership training?

LEIBOWITZ:

So, I do believe that we’re at a moment of redefining what’s possible in education, a really powerful moment and not dissimilar from the moments in which great approaches on which we build our programs were born. So Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio were born in moments of crisis. We’ve gone through this moment of crisis. And we’re experiencing the aftermath of that, the trauma we faced, the wisdom we’ve earned. And it feels to me like a moment of many new approaches emerging, that are emerging.

And so I wondered, what if I created a space where leaders who are seeking to redesign learning their way, not my way. I am redesigning my own school in very dramatic ways that I’m really proud of. But Revabilities is not about me promoting my way. It’s about inviting leaders to develop their signature approaches and their customized path to bring those visions to life.

And I’ve been so profoundly blessed and moved with the educators that I get to work with, people who are reimagining early-childhood as an approach, merged with social services to confront intergenerational trauma at this moment when a family has children between the ages of zero and five; of promoting leadership in early-childhood and in children; of developing voice and helping students share their voice in the world; of shifting from approach from daycare to community care and thinking about our centers as being community centers that do outreach in a broader way, healing, outdoor education programs, really vibrant, creative, visionary approaches with lots of heart and lots of wisdom.

And so it’s been a place where people can dream and imagine in a community while creating their own approach and standing at this moment and saying, “We’re going to face this moment with courage and with confidence. And we didn’t choose the adversity, but since it chose us, we can take it and trim it and find new possibilities that we had not previously imagined.” And it’s been such a joy.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I love it. Is there a specific leadership training program or course that you might recommend, relevant to what you’ve just talked about there?

LEIBOWITZ:

Yeah, so the entry course is, you can find, it’s a self-paced course and it’s super affordable: Stand Out Early Childhood, and you can find it at www.StandOutEarlyChildhood.com. You get lifetime access and it actually comes right now – I don’t know how long this will last – but it comes with a number of bonuses. But one of them is a one-on-one coaching session with me, which would cost a ton buying it individually. But the course is being sold for under $50.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome. And while we’re on the subject of great resources, any other professional learning or development resources you think would be great for our audience to check out?

LEIBOWITZ:

Yes, I am pretty much obsessed these days with the Routledge [book] series, Understanding The… Approach. So there’s Understanding The Montessori Approach, Understanding The Reggio Approach, Understanding The Waldorf Approach, Understanding The Te Whariki Approach (New Zealand’s national curriculum], Understanding The Danish Forest School Approach. And they are easy to read, extraordinary and give you insight into these approaches. And I’ve found them so valuable working with educators today to develop our own approaches, built on the components of other approaches and other research that resonates.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome, love it. And if folks would like to get in touch with you, Shira, or learn more about your work, where can they go to get more information?

LEIBOWITZ:

So, there’s lots of places, I’m pretty easy to find. www.Revabilities.com, Shira@Revabilities.com, you can email me. And I am all over social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, every place I’m Shira Leibowitz, easy to find. And there’s a Facebook group, Stand Out Educational Leadership, that has a lot of resources.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome. You’re even on TikTok, you’re one social media step ahead of me.

LEIBOWITZ:

Try it out. I don’t have a lot of videos yet, but I’m building up. And there’s a lot of really good content there to learn from. A lot of great educators have TikTok.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. Well, there you have it, folks. Dr. Shira Leibowitz. Great to chat with you today about reimagining early-childhood education and all the amazing things we do and that we should be telling other folks about. Thanks so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!

LEIBOWITZ:

Thank you so much!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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